Shakespeare: Invention of the Human
Although it is undoubtedly true that Harold Bloom has in the past two decades become a curmudgeonly broken record—I mean, how many times can you write about Whitman, Blake, and Emerson?—his seminal book on Shakespeare carries with it a radical but also totally believable thesis: Shakespeare’s plays, and specifically the way he presented his characters like Falstaff and Hamlet, can be credited as creating (or at least reflecting back for the first time) the psychological underpinnings of our everyday decisions and actions. Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” monologue (not technically a soliloquy since Ophelia’s in the background of the scene, overhearing) and Falstaff’s many intricate pontifications capture the complexity underneath our external presentation. Shakespeare not only recognized how we think and found a way to represent it, he also figured out a means to make our thoughts—inherently undramatic as they are—central to the dramatic tension. Nobody had ever done it quite like that, Bloom contends, and now it’s almost impossible to imagine art, or ourselves, otherwise.
Women of Will
Tina Packer—the founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, and an expert on the Bard as an actor, director, teacher, and scholar—argues in Women of Will that by tracing the development of Shakespeare’s female characters, we can not only see the their depth and complexity greatly increase, but that through this trajectory, we can see the depth and complexity of Shakespeare himself. The resulting work, based initially on a one-woman show that premiered in New York, is a wonderfully edifying tour through the Shakespearean canon and an important lens through which to view it.
The Tragedy of Arthur
In this novel, a writer named Arthur discovers that his father has been in possession of a “lost play” by Shakespeare called, as you’ve probably guessed, “The Tragedy of Arthur.” Arthur and his sister set out to get the play published while also trying to figure out whether or not it’s all just another of their father’s elaborate cons. Told with a Borgesian attention to scholarly detail, the novel’s form follows that of a real such publication, replete with a preface, a long introduction (long enough to be the novel part of the book), and, in a feat of impressive mimicry, the full text of “The Tragedy of Arthur.” As in, Phillips wrote a five-act Shakespearean version of King Arthur and put it into a novel. I mean, think of the temerity of such a notion, and then to do it well, and even convincingly? It’s a virtuoso performance for Shakespeare fans, yes, but also anyone who appreciates bold and brazen talent—like Shakespeare, but also like Arthur Phillips.
The Book of Sand and Shakespeare's Memory
Jorge Luis Borges
Speaking of Borgesian, let’s take a look at Phillips’s predecessor, the ultimate source of invented sources. Borges’s short story “Shakespeare’s Memory” contains all of his hallmarks: a fantastical premise involving literature (a man is gifted the complete memories of Shakespeare), esoteric references and academic verisimilitude (e.g. de Quincey, Samuel Butler, John Florio, and Holinshed are all name-dropped), and the powerful effects, both transcendent and dangerous, of literary works (Shakespeare’s memory threatens to overtake the protagonist, forcing him to give it away). Borges used text to examine texts—or often merely the idea of text in general—and is the paragon of criti-fiction (a term I’m sort of appropriating and slightly altering from Raymond Federman), if not its wholesale inventor. Reading him riff on a titan like Shakespeare is a rare and unapologetically nerdy delight.
Bagombo Snuff Box
Here’s another imaginative riffing on Shakespeare. Vonnegut’s 1963 short story (attributed, in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, to Vonnegut’s hyperbolic stand-in Kilgore Trout) explores a future world where Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” monologue has become a practical consideration. Aging has been cured and population is under tight control, so in order for a child to be born, someone else must volunteer to die. A couple having triplets is forced to find three willing suicides—or else have their newborn children killed. It’s a dark tale, to be sure, but so is the speech it’s based on (which, while we’re on the subject, seems like an odd stretch of writing to become, along with Romeo and Juliet’s “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”, the most widely quoted and recognizable quotation from all of Shakespeare’s plays—for Christ’s sakes he’s contemplating suicide, and not only that, he’s also wondering why anyone should go on living, and that the only reason we do is because we’re terrified of what comes after death; “cowards” is Hamlet’s word for it; and though it’s an immensely brilliant speech, it’s also defeatist and bleak and just depressing—which is fine, and in fact, I really like sad stuff, but it does make it strange that it’s so ubiquitously known and cherished).
Hogarth Shakespeare Series
Finally, here’s an entire series of books by major writers taking on Shakespeare. Hogarth gave some of the best novelists a rad, unmissable opportunity: to adapt any Shakespeare play into a novel. So the likes of Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Anne Tyler, and Howard Jacobson put their own spin on the Bard’s tales. Winterson, the influential author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Written on the Body, chose the “problem play” The Winter’s Tale to turn it into The Gap of Time, while Atwood takes on Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest, titled Hag-Seed. Beyond the sheer excitement at seeing these great writers delve into the rich language and complex drama, the Hogarth Shakespeare series offers a fascinating way to return to some of Shakespeare’s most profound (and, as in The Winter’s Tale, problematic) plays and discover a new way into it. Shylock Is my Name, Howard Jacobson’s interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, sees the titular character as Simon Strulovitch, an art dealer incensed over his daughter’s love of an anti-semitic footballer, and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is a redux of The Taming of the Shrew. (Totally nerdy extrapolation: Imagine a course organized around reading one of these novels and its corresponding play, as well as seeing a performance of that play, thereby approaching an often daunting figure from three distinct but important perspectives: the text, a company’s interpretation on the stage, and another writer’s modernization of the story and its themes—a kind of roundabout way to teach Shakespeare, not unlike the way learning a second language also inadvertently teaches you a ton about your first one.)
I know, I know, this is another one of those Shakespeare lists to celebrate his birthday (and his death day), which is estimated to be on April 23rd—it’s like, c’mon, we get it. Shakespeare was the best writer ever. Woo-hoo. Who cares? What relevancy can Shakespeare possibly maintain over the course of 400 years?
Well, that’s what I’m here to try to communicate, by recommending a couple of the richest nonfiction books ever written on the Bard and also highlighting Shakespeare’s profound influence on contemporary fiction. Between the two, I think we can understand Shakespeare’s historical legacy and his lasting effect on writers of today.